Blatantly Pro-Gentrification SB 35 Sneaks Through California Legislature
In late September, California Governor Jerry Brown signed a series of state-level laws related to housing. One of these, Senate Bill (SB) 35, is blatantly pro-gentrification, pro-displacement, pro-developer profits, and anti-local democratic control.
Though this measure is not the end of the world, as it is just an extension of the existing, skewed balance of power that characterizes development at the local level, it represents yet another blow to historically marginalized communities fighting against the rampant displacement caused by gentrification and rising rents.
SB 35 mandates that certain residential development proposals be granted “by-right” approval, meaning they cannot be subjected to environmental review or public hearings of any kind — exactly the tools local residents use to exercise some basic measure of democratic control over what is built in their neighborhoods. Subscribing to the wishful idea that profit-driven housing construction will “trickle down” to low-income residents, this bill is designed explicitly to speed up the construction of new buildings, regardless of what local community members want.
To be fair, within the legislation there are some important limits. Projects can only qualify if they adhere to existing zoning codes and do not destroy any rent-controlled units (although there is nothing in the legislation that protects against the indirect displacement caused by rising rents). Furthermore, in certain cities where market-rate construction is booming, including Los Angeles, qualifying projects must include 50% “affordable” units. This, the L.A. Times assures us, will ensure that SB 35 will bea win for low-income residents.
But there’s a catch: “affordable” for L.A. is defined as a household of four earning under $72,100 a year — double or even quadruple the average income in rapidly gentrifying areas like Crenshaw, Leimert Park, or Boyle Heights! This means that a project that is half market-rate, half “affordable,” will be automatically approved, with no chance for local residents to voice their objections to the inevitable displacement that will result, even when what’s deemed “affordable” is radically unaffordable for a neighborhood’s current residents.
The reasoning behind this bill, which we see all over the place in the debates on housing in California, buys into the deeply flawed, outdated demonization of local opposition to development that John Perry identified in his recent essay, “Stop Saying ‘NIMBY.’” Proponents of this viewpoint (the YIMBYs) try to paint any and all local struggles that oppose new construction as the modern equivalents of the white-dominated “slow-growth” movement, prominent in California in the 1970s-1990s, that sought to keep wealthy white communities segregated by race and class. But the urban landscape has changed, with capital now flooding to the previously red-lined central cities, rather than the suburbs. Today, those opposing unbridled, profit-driven development are often low-income people of color seeking to maintain some basic sense of community and habitability in the face of capitalist displacement. SB 35 willfully ignores this basic truth.
It’s clear that this law is not intended to help low-income communities of color, but profit-seeking developers and investors that want to build as they please. Just look at who supported the bill: the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce; various landlord/property owner groups, including the California Apartment Association; and L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti (“totally in the developers’ pockets,” according to Hollywood historian Greg Williams)